The Kingdom of Hay

15 Jan

The rolling agricultural landscapes of Herefordshire have an easy-going charm, but the finest scenery hereabouts is along the banks of the River Wye, which wriggles and worms its way across the county linking most of the places of interest. Plonked in the middle of the county on the Wye is Hereford, a sleepy, rather old-fashioned sort of place whose proudest possession, the remarkable Mappa Mundi map, was almost flogged off in a round of ecclesiastical budget cuts back in the 1980s. To the west of Hereford, hard by the Welsh border, the key attraction is Hay-on-Wye, which – thanks to the purposeful industry of its very own self-proclaimed ‘King’ Richard Booth – has become the world’s largest repository of secondhand books, on sale in a score of secondhand bookshops. The Hay Festival of Literature & Arts is an annual literature festival held there for ten days from May to June. Devised by Norman and Peter Florence in 1988, the festival was described by Bill Clinton in 2001 as ‘The Woodstock of the mind’. But Hay-on-Wye was already well known for its many bookshops before the festival was launched. Booth opened his first shop there in 1961, and by the 1970s Hay had gained the nickname ‘The Town of Books’. On 1 April 1977 Booth proclaimed Hay an independent kingdom with himself as king – styled Richard Cœur de Livre – and his horse as Prime Minister. He lives there still, ruling the kingdom of Hay from his very own castle in the hills.

Straddling the Welsh/English border some twenty miles west of Hereford, the sleepy little town of Hay-on-Wye is known to most people for one thing – secondhand bookshops. Richard Booth, whose family originates from the area, opened the first in 1961 and since then the town has become a bibliophile’s paradise, with just about every spare inch of Hay being given over to the trade, including the old cinema and the ramshackle stone castle. Most of Hay’s inhabitants are outsiders, which means that it has little indigenous feel, but its setting, against the spectacular backdrop of Hay Bluff and the Black Mountains, together with its creaky little streets, is delightful. In summer, the town bursts with life as it plays host to a succession of riverside parties and travelling fairs, the pick of which is the Hay Literary Festival in the last week of May, when London’s literary world decamps there. Richard Booth’s Bookshop is the largest secondhand bookshop in Europe: a huge, draughty warehouse of almost unlimited browsing potential. It’s owned – like just about everything in Hay – by Richard Booth, who lives in part of the castle, a fire-damaged Jacobean mansion built into the walls of a thirteenth-century fortress right in the centre of Hay. In another part of the mansion, Booth’s wife runs the Hay Castle Booth Books, a sedate collection of fine art, antiquarian and photography books.

Phil Rickman uses the setting and history of this fascinating town of books as the inspiration for the plot of his novel The Magus of Hay. When a man’s body is found below a waterfall it looks like suicide or an accidental drowning – until DI Frannie Bliss enters the dead man’s home. What he finds there has him consulting Merrily Watkins, the Diocese of Hereford’s official advisor on the paranormal. It’s nearly forty years since the town of Hay-on-Wye was declared an independent state by its self-styled king, a development seen at the time as a joke. But the pastiche had a serious side. And behind it, unknown to most of the townsfolk, lay a darker design, a hidden history of murder and ritual magic, the relics of which are only now becoming visible. It’s a situation that will take Merrily Watkins – on her own for the first time in years and facing public humiliation over a separate case – to the edge of madness. For those interested in the lurid past history of Hay, an another interesting fictional depiction of the town is Barbara Erskine’s Lady of Hay, a story of long awaited revenge spanning centuries. In London, journalist Jo Clifford plans to debunk the belief in past-lives in a hard-hitting magazine piece. But her scepticism is shaken when a hypnotist forces her to relive the experiences of Matilda, Lady of Hay, a noblewoman during the reign of King John. She learns of Matilda’s unhappy marriage, her love for the handsome Richard de Clare, and the brutal death threats handed out by King John, before it becomes clear that Jo’s past and present are inevitably entwined. She realises that eight hundred years on, Matilda’s story of secret passion and unspeakable treachery is about to repeat itself…

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2 Responses to “The Kingdom of Hay”

  1. Maggie_Flynn_Writing January 18, 2017 at 1:16 am #

    This place sounds fascinating, and those books sound really interesting- I’ll have to add them to the growing TBR pile.

  2. Nick Hatton February 5, 2017 at 1:55 pm #

    I walked from Hay to Pontypool during the summer

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